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Keys to a Healthy Heart:

February is American Heart Month. While Valentine’s Day has had us focused on our hearts, we should take time to celebrate healthy hearts – our own and those of our loved ones.

The American Heart Association cites cardiovascular diseases, including stroke, as our nation’s No. 1 killer. California ranks 33rd nationwide in cardiovascular deaths per 100,000 people, according to the just-released 2006 United Health Foundation America’s Health Rankings Report.

The keys to a healthy heart include changes in diet, exercise and lifestyle. These changes aren’t difficult, but it does take some effort. Taking care of your heart can pay off in long-term good health.

Here are a few tips to help ensure your heart and those of your loved ones are strong and healthy for years to come:

Visit your doctor. Have regular checkups. Include blood pressure and cholesterol level readings, as appropriate. Talk with your doctor about any risk factors. Discuss any illnesses, ongoing health concerns and family medical history. If you have health conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol, carefully follow your doctor’s instructions, and keep him or her informed of any symptoms or changes.

Quit smoking. Don’t put it off any longer. Smoking poses numerous health risks including heart disease and elevated blood pressure. Try a quit-smoking program or talk with your doctor about aids such as nicotine gum or patches. Counseling or a support group also may be helpful. Quitting smoking may not be easy, but your health – and life – depends on it.

Fuel up with good food. Eat foods that are low in trans- and saturated fats, cholesterol and sodium. Remember that low in fat doesn’t always mean low in calories, so read nutrition labels carefully. A diet high in fiber can lower cholesterol. Be sure to include foods such as oats and beans in your diet. Fruits and vegetables are a good source of fiber as well, plus they have many heart-healthy vitamins and minerals. If you drink alcoholic beverages, do so in moderation.

Keep your body moving. Exercise is important for a healthy heart. That doesn’t mean you need to run marathons. Aerobic exercise such as walking, bicycling or swimming is great for your heart. Choose an activity that is a good match to your fitness level, and be sure to start slowly. Gradually work up to five days a week, 30 minutes a day. Talk to your doctor before beginning any exercise or sports program.

Manage stress and anger. A life free of stress is nearly impossible; however, you can change the way you react to life’s daily challenges. Use relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, gentle stretching or meditation. Look at your daily and long-term priorities. Are your goals realistic? Do your best each day and let the rest go. Eating well and exercising also can help. Make time for good health and good relationships. It will do your heart good.

David Hansen is the chief executive officer of UnitedHealthcare of California.

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